NZ prime minister moots Ports of Auckland move

“I don't mind if the port is moved. But I do care where it goes,” Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson. Credit: Ports of Auckland-Alex Wallace Photography

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, confirmed on 9 December 2019 that her cabinet is in agreement that “it’s not viable” for the North Island’s main port to remain in Auckland, sparking a highly controversial debate about where it should be moved to.

Ardern stopped short of saying where the port should go – likely to cost NZ$10 billion (USD6.5 billion) regardless – adding that would be addressed by infrastructure minister Shane Jones. His ministry will carry out a further investigation, which the cabinet is expected to consider in May 2020.

A move has been discussed for some years, the general aim being to relocate Auckland’s cargo terminals, leaving the port as a cruise and ferry harbour. Various reports have looked at relocation options that include:

  • Tauranga, 154 km southeast of Auckland
  • Manukau Harbour, close to Auckland
  • Build a brand new port at the Firth of Thames, just southeast of Auckland
  • Northport, at Whangarei and about 165 km north of Auckland.

The latest 2019 report favours the latter, and minister Jones states, “It remains my view that Northport is the most sensible relocation option.”

That view is dismissed by Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson as impractical. And that’s led to Jones publicly warning Gibson to keep away from the ports debate, stating, “My advice to you as a chief executive is ‘do not put your head in a political noose.’” Describing Gibson as a political combatant, Jones added, “The decision to move the port is as much about politics as it is about economics.”

Speaking exclusively to DPC, Ports of Auckland spokesman Matt Ball said that port’s position “is that any decision on a move is a matter for our owner, Auckland Council. We can say, however, that the most recent report is badly flawed and Northport is not a viable option for handling Auckland freight. It’s too far away and the harbour is actually too small. Northport currently has only 570 m of berth length, while Auckland has 3,000 m. In effect, an entirely new port would need to be built.”

Of the other options, Ball drew attention to a 2016 report, which concluded that Northport is also not a viable location “for handling Auckland freight and that alternative sites in Manukau Harbour or the Firth of Thames should be explored. Ball noted that that report was by Ernst & Young, “the same consultant that’s produced the most recent report [2019] now making a case for Northport. It’s odd that the same company could produce two reports with opposite conclusions.”

Around 75% of imports that arrive at Ports of Auckland stay in the Auckland area, and so plans to expand the port and dredge the channel and berths to accommodate larger ships remain part of the port’s masterplan.

Ball said: “We expect to finish our terminal expansion in 2021, our automation project will go live this year, and we have applied for consent to deepen the channel. These projects will give us over 1.6 million teu capacity – enough for an Auckland population of over 2.5 million people. This is all we need until around 2050, and after that further automation could increase capacity.

“We don’t know if or when this port may be moved, but if it is it will take a long time – around 30 years. Our masterplan that fits that timeline, and we’re implementing it accordingly.”

CEO Gibson made his position clear on the new study, “Let me say up front I don’t mind if the port is moved. But I do care where it goes, and that decision should be made on facts. What none of us need is the latest jumble of made-up facts. This is the fifth port study in my eight years as CEO of Ports of Auckland, and, well, let’s say it’s not the best.

“Look, move the port. Fine, no problem. But can we at least move it somewhere sensible?”